Blues music has long suffered through something resembling an identity crisis when it comes to its appreciation in the ears of the mainstream public.
A vast portion of society has refused to acknowledge the blues’ immense impact on all other forms of music and they even go so far as to cite a general disinterest in it because – the way they hear it – the blues are, either:
A. ‘Slow and sleepy’;
B. ‘Just plain boring’.
Blues music has even gone so far as to be tagged as ‘sad music’ by much of the masses.
But the way that veteran Chicago bluesman John Primer sees it, that’s all a bad and unfounded rap. Especially the part about blues being ‘sad music’.
“A lot of people don’t recognize the blues and what they’re all about. A lot of the younger generation calls it sad music, and some of the older generation call it that, too. But it’s not sad music. Blues music is joyful. You, the person listening to it, might be sad when you go hear it, but that’s the person – not the music. Those same people will go listen to the blues and then go home and they suddenly feel better. They go home and they sleep really good. I hear that a lot,” Primer said. “So, there’s always room for the blues. Blues comes straight from your soul – today, just like it did generations ago. That’s why the blues will never go away … it’s not going to die.”
No doubt Primer is an authority on the blues and it’s amazing healing properties. He’s been knee-deep in the scene in Chicago ever since blowing into town from Mississippi in the 1960s when he was just 18-years-old. There’s also no doubt that Primer has never played ‘slow and sleepy’ or ‘just plain boring’ music.
Not only did the Grammy Award-nominated singer, songwriter and guitarist cut his teeth with incredible stints in both Muddy Waters’ and Magic Slim’s bands, he’s also shared the bandstand with everyone from Lonnie Brooks to Buddy Guy to Junior Wells … just to name a few. Oh, and lest we forget, he was also up on the bandstand at the Checkerboard Lounge that magical night in late November, 1981, when The Rolling Stones breezed into town and played a few numbers with Muddy and the guys.
Primer recently returned from a trip overseas, where he played the blues in Geneva, Switzerland. Turns out that jaunt was a win-win situation, as the fans there ate up Primer’s music with a spoon, while the man himself also enjoyed the atmosphere and scenery that Switzerland provided.
“I had a great time. It was nice, warm weather while I was over there. It wasn’t too cold, but it did snow one morning in the mountains while I was there,” he said. “But I had a great time. The fans over there really love the blues, just like they do here (in the United States). People just seem to love the blues, no matter where you go or where you’re at; they really appreciate this music.”
Blues fans have long appreciated the effort that Primer puts forth up on the bandstand. He’s long been known for wringing every ounce of energy out of not only his guitar, but his body, as well, when on stage. You don’t have to have a front row seat to feel the power and heat that Primer and his band generate.
A shining example of this was unearthed a couple of years ago in the form of You Can Make It If You Try! (Wolf Records), a live recording from the 1990s when Primer was still a member of Magic Slim & The Teardrops. In those days, Primer would open the show with a couple of numbers with The Teardrops, before Magic Slim made his way onstage, and a selection of those songs are what are captured on this live disc.
The performances on You Can Make It If You Try! are red-hot and are all classic Primer. It would have been too bad had songs like “Don’t You Hear Me Crying” and “Big Fat Woman” had remained buried in a vault any longer than the near two decades that they were.
“The guy from Wolf Records (Hannes Folterbauer) always has a lot of great stuff and he just dug that stuff up. He’s got a lot of blues music that he’s recorded over the years,” the 71-year-old Primer said. “Besides Magic Slim, I was one of his favorite guitar players.”
Not only was Folterbauer the first person to record and issue an album from Magic Slim & The Teardrops (in the mid-80s, when Primer was in the band), but he also recorded Primer solo for the first time in 1991, resulting in Poor Man Blues (Wolf Records).
“He (Folterbauer) was very easy to work with and I appreciated the chance he gave to me, when all the other record labels didn’t,” Primer said. “I was able to promote myself and share my music with the world … that was one of the biggest moments of my musical life.”
It’s a real shame, but Nick Holt (bass) and Earl Howell (drums) – the rhythm section for The Teardrops when You Can Make It If You Try was recorded, never seem to get all the just deserts they should when it comes to being a truly dynamic and first-class duo.
“We all know there were great. We were very, very tight at playing those ole’ lowdown Delta-styled blues, mixed with the Chicago sound. We were just like a family, like brothers. There was never any fighting or arguing or anything like that between us,” said Primer. “I mean, sometimes I would get mad when Magic Slim wanted me to play too many leads. I was supposed to be the rhythm player and I’d think, ‘Why is he making me play all these leads?’ Of course, I just thought that to myself. I sure didn’t say anything to him about giving me all those solos. I just didn’t realize what he was doing.”
And just what was the late, great Magic Slim doing?
“He was getting me ready to go out on my own. I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s what he was doing,” he said. “He was pushing me to be a complete guitar player for when I got out on my own. I won’t say he was like my daddy, but I will say that Magic Slim was like a big, big brother to me.”
A couple of years ago, Primer got the opportunity to help give a tip of the hat back to the big man, when he played on Shawn (Little Slim) Holt and The Teardrops’ Daddy Told Me (Blind Pig Records). Primer sang lead on “Before You Accuse Me” and also played guitar on that cut, as well as on “Buddy Buddy Friend.”
“That was great for me to have a chance to help out Magic Slim’s son. You know, Magic Slim really helped me out a lot, so when they called and asked me to play on Shawn’s record, I was very excited to do it,” he said. “His son is trying to carry Magic Slim’s style and music onward. Shawn always said that he studied my music more than he did his dad’s … he just liked the way that I played. But to me, he sounds more like his dad than he does me. He plays with his thumb, just like his dad did. But when he sings, he doesn’t sound like his dad, he sounds like his uncle Nick (Holt).”
Last year saw Primer playing an integral role in the celebration of Muddy Waters’ 100th birthday. Primer was part of an All-Star band that closed out last year’s Chicago Blues Festival with a Centennial Tribute to Muddy Waters. He also played on the highly-acclaimed and Grammy nominated Muddy Waters 100 album, a disc that also featured James Cotton, Derek Trucks, Bob Margolin, Johnny Winter, Gary Clark Jr. and Shemekia Copeland.
It was through another larger-than-life Chicago bluesman that Primer initially caught the attention of Muddy Waters, way back in the day.
“I came to Chicago in 1963 and I was around here for a few years and I finally got into a band called the Willie Dixon All-Stars. We were down in Mexico and Muddy heard me playing and he asked Willie who that young man playing the guitar was. Willie said, ‘That’s John Primer.’ Muddy said, ‘Hum, that man knows my music.'”
That paved the way for Primer to enter Muddy’s fold, where he remained until Waters passed in 1983. The way Primer sees it, Muddy’s music is every bit as powerful – and every bit as an important teaching tool – now, as it was back when he played with the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer.
“One thing about Muddy Waters’ music is, it’s music that tells a story and has feeling. You know, Muddy’s music is really the beginning of learning how to play music and how to play slide (guitar). A lot of people will listen to Muddy to learn how to play slide guitar, still to this day,” Primer said. “And the chords and stuff that Muddy did back in the day were phenomenal, man. His music is a learning project (for upcoming musicians) and will probably be that way forever. The words in his songs still have the same meaning and feeling today that they did all those years ago when he first sang them.”
Recently, Primer has picked up a new recording foil – harpist extraordinare Bob Corritore. The two got together and recorded Knockin’ Around These Blues (Delta Groove) in 2013.
“Bob and I go way back, man. He’s from Chicago and that’s where we met. He knew me before I knew him back in the ’70s. He used to see me play at Theresa’s Lounge (when Primer was in the house band). I remember seeing him there, but I didn’t know him then,” Primer said. “Then of course, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona and has that club, The Rhythm Room. I went out there and played with Magic Slim a few times. And then I played at a blues fest there in the day and then at his club that night. It went on and on like that and then we finally hooked up to record. He liked what I did and I liked what he did.”
Knockin’ Around These Blues is not the end of their partnership, by any means. It looks like a new collaboration involving Primer and Corritore is on the horizon.
“I was just over there finishing up some songs on my birthday (March 3) with him and Henry Gray on piano and Big Jon Atkinson,” he said. “Bob’s a great guy and I love working with him. He’s always trying to help the music. It don’t matter what kind of music it is, he’s always trying to help it.”
It looks as though Primer and Corritore also have their bags packed and are on the verge of traveling to Central America to play some music and spread the gospel of the blues through some classroom sessions.
“Yeah, him and I are going to Belize to do a little school project and stuff. They asked me who I wanted to bring and I thought and said, ‘Let me take Bob.’ He’s always helping me out so this is a chance for me to pay him back,” Primer said. “And, he knows how to teach and to do harmonica workshops and stuff. We’re going to go there for about seven days.”
He’s long been acknowledged as a masterful classic Chicago blues guitarist, and rightfully so. One thing that makes Primer such an inventive player is his slide technique. And according to the man himself, it was a technique that took a while to develop, after initial attempts at playing slide ended before they really started.
“Yeah, I tried and tried (to play slide), but I couldn’t stand all that scrubbing (sound) on the guitar. It would get my nerves going bad. Well, I made my way down to Theresea’s Lounge in 1974 and Sammy Lawhorn was in Junior Wells’ house band then. Sammy used to always play slide, in Elmore James’ style – not in the Muddy style. So I got the idea to play slide in regular A440 (tuning). He just dropped one string on the guitar and then played in A440 … so that’s how I started out and then I learned the rest on my own,” he said. “It’s note-to-note. I kind of learned that from Johnny Winter, listening to Muddy’s albums that he was on. I learned a lot from him (Winter), too. I don’t have to tune the guitar in an open key to play slide. I can play slide in any key when I’m tuned to A440. I can play slide just like I can pick or play in any key … its’ all the same way. That’s kind of how B.B. King started. He couldn’t play the slide, so he started playing that one note and using tremolo with his finger … he came up with that shakin’ style. He could make a sound just like a slide.”
A lot of budding young guitar players are turned on to the instrument after seeing a friend or neighbor pecking away on one at an early age. Still others fall under the magical spell of the guitar after receiving one as a birthday or Christmas gift. However, that was not the case with Primer. His first encounter with a guitar was a homemade affair and came on the side of his grandmother Laura Nell’s house.
“I started out as a young kid (in Camden, Mississippi), five or six-years-old and my uncle and them had one string (a broom wire) on the side of my grandmother’s house with two bricks under it. Him and my cousin used to play that all the time and when they’d go, I’d play it myself,” he said. “They had a bottle and I’d get that bottle and go sliding it on that string, playing it that way. That’s how I really got started.”
Some six decades later, Primer is still ‘sliding it on that string,’ playing the blues to faithful fans all over the globe. Not surprisingly, it never dawned on him back then that playing guitar would turn into his life’s passion and would end up being his vocation of choice.
“Man … I never could have imagined back then that I’d be going all these places and playing the blues. I never thought it could have come to this,” he said. “But I always did want to be a musician. I guess if I wasn’t musician I’d just be working a regular job and trying to pay bills. It’s easier now (to make money playing music than it was when he hit Chicago in the early ’60s) then when I first started. I played, played, played back then and didn’t make no money. It was hard back then, but I’m still not making much these days, either.”
Visit John’s website at: www.johnprimerblues.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.